Tuesday, 29 September 2009

It offendeth mine eyes! (And pretty much everything else)

I suspect the following video will either make you laugh until it hurts, or make you want to punch your own eyeballs for so carelessly allowing you to view such highly concentrated awfulness in the first place. In other words, yes, that's right, it's new Microsoft advert time:

If you watch hard enough you can almost see them desperately, popping their happy pills.* But you do wonder if that's part of the strategy: make such throat-burningly sickly and preposterous ads that sheer incredulity alone will drive it viral. It's not as if this a first offence. Witness, for example, the ad for Microsoft Songsmith:

They can't have thought that was a good idea. Surely? The little girl's laptop is even a Mac.

But if people like me are posting these dreadful things, however disparagingly, is it actually a brilliant strategy? Or are so many of us just so tied into Microsoft products that their marketing can produce any old glossy dreck and still sell the product? I wish I knew. Either way, though, if anyone knows a good cult deprogrammer, you know where to send them.

In other Microsoft news

Microsoft's free anti-virus software is available to download, as of today.

So that's good. A few security gaps will be filled, for some. And best of all every copy comes with a free soundtrack: the distant gleeful cackling of the world's virus makers.

Because that's what's going to happen, isn't it? Surely, every malicious hacker worth the name will be competing to crack Microsoft Security Essentials first - and indeed the one to crack it the most conspicuously. It might be brilliant against present threats, but who knows what attacks will be coming its way?

Frankly, I'd rather not find out.

On which note, if it's free you're after, and you hate all those pop-ups and slowdowns that seem to come with every other anti-virus - in some ways an anti-virus can be almost as annoying and controlling as an actual virus - this Panda Cloud thing sounds an unusually hassle-free and uninvasive solution - and better still, it's starting to get some very good reviews...

*Pause at 3:38 to see their true inner terror (you have to catch just the right frame, though, just a fraction before it hits 3:39).

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Appendices omitted: it's all on Google

The video below is a review of 'Brecht At Night' by Mati Unt, a 'documentary novel' recently published by the ever-adventurous Dalkey Archive Press. I happened to find the review on the site of a promising new monthly literary journal, The Collagist. But this post isn't here to recommend the output of the Dalkey Archive Press (although I do, very highly), or to note that it might be worth keeping an eye on The Collagist (which it might), or even to highlight the book itself (pretty intriguing though it sounds), the moment where this video becomes relevant to this particular blog occurs at the 06:30 mark (click here if you prefer to watch only from that moment).

Apparently, the translator has decided to omit a bibliography and other appendices because, to quote the translator's note, "the internet, still in its infancy when the book was first published, has rendered [them] redundant. Nowadays you can find a great deal of the information included there by using a search engine" - in other words, they've been omitted because nowadays you can just 'google stuff'; a rationale which, for me, utterly misses the point.

Firstly, I generally don't read whilst next to an open laptop - that, of course, being the big advantage of books, that they don't have to be plugged in or connected to wi-fi, you can read them anywhere - but even more than that, often I've simply had enough of staring at a computer screen - books are a wonderful break from all that work and idle clicking. Therefore, if there's some additional information that might enhance my experience of a book, I'd much rather read it within that book - and indeed I'm much more likely to read it if that's where it's to be found. Even if you have got a phone or laptop beside you, it's still much quicker to just flick to the back of the book.

Secondly, omitting these appendices ignores the work done by the author in compiling them - sifting out the illuminating sources from the dull, the reliable from the less reliable. Why make the readers do this all over again for themselves? Moreover, much of the history that seems to be an integral - though also in some ways fictionalised - part of 'Brecht At Night' will be unfamiliar to the majority outside of Estonia, and while the novel itself is probably a very useful starting source for further research into that history, I'd be much more interested in the additional context the author himself had judged worth pointing us towards.

I suppose it's possible that omitting appendices may make a book cheaper to publish, perhaps cheaper to buy, and in turn perhaps more likely to reach a wider audience. But even if that was the case here, why not include a web address in the book and instead publish the appendices on the Dalkey Archive Press site? Hosting the information may even have helped drive a few potential customers to the site - via a search engine, in fact.

Ultimately, what concerns me most about the decision to omit information from 'Brecht At Night' is that in a world where almost everything can be googled there is huge value to having a reliable route through it all - a curator, a guide, an editor, someone to point you in interesting and reliable directions. Sure, cut costs by posting appendices online, if you must, but please, publishers, don't leave them out altogether. Navigating a world of near infinite knowledge can be hard enough at the best of times without some of the signposts being removed as well.

N.B. More usually, books from Dalkey Archive Press include useful additional information, such as critical essays or author interviews, rather than omitting it. And long may that continue. [ADDITIONAL NOTE] 'Brecht At Night' does in fact include a substantial context-setting introductory essay as additional content.

UPDATE: Eric Dickens, the translator of 'Brecht At Night', has responded in the comments - many thanks to him for taking the time and for clearing up the matter.

Just in case anyone should only see this page, however, I should just like to make clear that the book is in fact prefaced by an introductory essay in which Eric Dickens very much sets the work in its historical/literary context - as you'll see for yourself at Google Books - and that the decision to omit the appendices was not the publisher's decision. Also, from Mr Dickens' descriptions, and he should know, what has been left out does indeed sound substantially less interesting and extensive than the reviewer in the above video perhaps suggests.

A possibility that publishers could begin to omit appendices in favour of an assumption that an interested reader should resort to Google, does (or did) concern me; but, all in all, these particular appendices don't sound any great loss. My apologies for commenting solely on the basis of a review!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Losing Ada

Remember I blogged a few weeks ago about how the Early Learning Centre is doing its bit to write women out of the world of IT?

Well, yesterday it happened again. Nothing to do with wooden toy vendors this time, but I still got the same uncomfortable feeling that for whatever reason, women in IT are being quietly obscured.

This time I was reading John Naughton's column in the Observer, in which he pays tribute to Blogger - the blogging platform that brings you this very blog - on its tenth anniversary.

Here's what John has to say about Blogger's anniversary bash:

On 1 September, there was a party in San Francisco to mark the moment, attended by - among others - Blogger's founder, Evan Williams (who later founded Twitter), and the journalist Scott Rosenberg, who has just published "Say Everything" (sayeverything.com), an absorbing book on the phenomenon that Blogger enabled.

Sounds accurate enough, doesn't it? But Blogger didn't have just one founder, it had two: Evan Williams, now CEO of Twitter, and Meg Hourihan, now...well, according to Wikipedia, now a wife and mother.

I don't know if Meg was at the party, but John's article certainly doesn't mention her. Instead, he chooses to credit Evan Williams alone with creating the application that led to the mass worldwide democratisation of the internet:

Blogging has revived - and begun to expand - the public sphere, and in the process may revitalise our democracies. If it does, then we will have Evan Williams largely to thank for it.

I don't know why Meg isn't mentioned. I sent a tweet to John Naughton to ask him, but no reply has come back. The feminist in me sees a worrying tendency to ignore women in technology, the realist wonders if Meg was mentioned but got edited out due to space constraints.

But at least, thanks to the very software they created, I can take the opportunity to correct the omission here and to congratulate Evan *and* Meg on Blogger's 10th anniversary. I've been using it since 2002 and can honestly say it changed my life for the infinitely better. Thanks to both of you for that.

More from the junction between Twitter and bad journalism

If Uri Geller is the world's leading spoon-bender, then Derren Brown is surely its leading mind-bender; Britain's best answer to David Blaine, that doesn't end in a preposition.

Last week the spookily self-assured brain tamperer, who once took a good couple of hours of TV viewers' lives to conspicuously and lengthily fail to take his own, decided to have a go at a less bullety game of chance, the National Lottery. First he correctly predicted the numbers live on telly, simultaneously with the actual draw itself, then, later in the week followed up with an hour-long show purporting to explain how he did it.

The first I heard about this was on Twitter, ditto the somewhat dissatisfied reaction to what passed for his explanation – not least from mathematicians. But this being news (or something like it) a story was also to be found on the BBC website, under the headline “Brown Lotto trick 'confuses' fans”. Clearly it wasn't about Gordon Brown, since it contained the word fans, so I took a look and near the beginning found this sentence:

And on blogging site Twitter one fan said he was "still confused", while another called it a "massive letdown".

Later came these paragraphs:

Twitter critics of the explanation show include Markpirie, who said: "I'm still confused about what way he did it to be honest."

Awwchristy called the 38-year-old a "massive letdown" and KimGVille said: "Is it just me or was Derren Brown's explanation last night very disappointing?"

But some fans enjoyed Brown's stunt.

Michaelvjjones posted on his Twitter page that the show had been "very interesting & entertaining".

Xolani1990 added: "Derren Brown is pretty cool... I can see why people are so skeptical [sic] about him, but I think he's on to something here."

Never mind that 'skeptical' is a legitimate spelling so doesn't really need a '[sic]' next to it, what bothers me here isn't the use of Twitter as a source, but the article's apparent assumption that just a few tweets is enough to demonstrate the writer's assertion that viewers as a whole – and presumably Brown had rather more than four of them – were a bit confused and letdown by the supposed explanation of his methods.

Certainly, quoting opinions from Twitter is not too much different to conducting a vox pop – though with the added advantage of not having to actually talk to people or subtly prompt them into succinctly saying whatever it was that you wanted them to say. Nor do I have strong objections to stories quoting individual Twitterers to illustrate a wider opinion.

But here that's not quite what's going on: the opinions of a few Twitterers seem to have taken the place of the show's entire viewing public – at best it's rushed journalism, at worst lazy. FIRST, establish the claim you're making with some kind of convincing quantitative source, THEN add the colour of individual opinions.

I mean, I don't really have any doubt that there was widespread dissatisfaction, and I couldn't really care much less about the story itself, but the point is, making a bald statement then dressing it up with a few unsupported quotes from Twitter is just bad journalism.

And now, if I could find the right stories to support the following statement, I'd like to say that I've seen this done too many times already...

But I can't, so I won't.

(But I have).